A Lesson from the Digital Productivity Terrorists

Portrait by Joi Ito (joi.ito.com), licensed CC-BY

Doctorow: Productivity Terrorist?

Some time ago I came across this comment from BoingBoing blogger Cory Doctorow that inspires both shock and awe: “As a co-parenting new father who writes at least a book per year, half-a-dozen columns a month, ten or more blog posts a day, plus assorted novellas and stories and speeches, I know just how short time can be and how dangerous distraction is.” Doctorow’s intent, I think, is to inspire, but his example is just as likely to depress.

Doctorow is just one of a relatively new breed of writers and reporters who, as digital natives working predominantly online, produce as much in one day as many print writers used to come up with in a month. To the traditional print journalist, their new ethos of digital productivity is not just foreign, it’s al-Qaeda foreign. They are publishing terrorists, threatening the placid print way of life.

From the print perspective, digital media and excessive workloads go hand in hand. Commenting on a Folio: magazine blog last week, an anonymous “Exhausted Editor” bemoaned an increasing digital workload: “I’ve got enough junk to write/post/cover. . . I’m tired of writing the stories, cooking the meals, flying the corporate digital jet and waxing the furniture—figuratively, of course.” And yesterday, B2B editorial consultant (and—full disclosure—my long-time mentor) Howard Rauch tweeted that “continuously overloading B2B editors with digital responsibilities undoubtedly is key reason why original content is dying a slow death.”

As a bred-in-the-bone print editor, I sympathize. And yet I wonder. Is it just our old print ways, our preconceptions and work habits, that make digital workloads look so extreme? We say that quality will invariably suffer with increased output. But does it? The content farms may be spewing out tons of junk, but there’s another digital press corps, found in news sites like Mashable, Engadget, TechCrunch, and ReadWriteWeb, that match high productivity with high quality.

Marshall Kirkpatrick

Kirkpatrick: Workload grueling but great

The prodigious output of some of these writers is inconceivable to most old-guard print people. Earlier this week, ReadWriteWeb co-editor Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote on Twitter (post now deleted) that  he was looking to hire a writer “to produce 5 solid web tech news articles a day, 5 days a week.”  Was this an unreasonable expectation? Maybe so. Fellow twitterer @Alex replied that few could meet this standard: “turns out the number of people who can do that is around 20. And we all have jobs.”

In a subsequent article on ReadWriteWeb, “I Worked on the AOL Content Farm & It Changed My Life,” Kirkpatrick acknowledged that he has indeed been having trouble filling the position. But his title suggests that he sees productivity not as a rare natural talent, but as the product of training. As he recounts in this article and another, he began his career blogging for AOL and two other sites, producing 10 to 12 posts a day. “It was grueling,” he writes, “and it was great.”

What is notably missing from Kirkpatrick’s career path is any exposure to print journalism. There was simply no one to tell him that his productivity was unreasonable.

It is—or was—quite otherwise in print. In my experience, the working environment of a print operation, particularly for monthly publications, was rarely conducive to what now passes for productivity. Yet we were exactly as productive as we needed to be. The deadlines were met, the pages were filled, and our readers were satisfied.

Now, though, digital media have set the bar much higher. There is no longer a limited number of pages to fill, but an infinite amount of cyberspace. Print veterans will have to reset their expectations and definitions of productivity. If not, they will simply fade away along with their medium.

Although it may be messy, the transition to digital does not have to be painful. As a first step, print editors might consider Kirkpatrick’s implied advice about digital workloads: to see them not as a threat, but an opportunity.

No Monopoly on Lousy Content

Are content farms just convenient whipping boys for bloggers and mainstream media alike? When the likes of Demand Media and Associated Content aren’t being flayed for underpaying writers, they are criticized for producing lousy content. But bad writing and reporting are readily found both on and off the Internet, from personal blogs to city papers. Could it be that the content farms are just symptoms of a wider problem that’s endemic both on the Web and, increasingly, in mainstream journalism?

In a piece on Demand Media’s popularity with investors, Gavin Dunaway suggests that content farms have no monopoly on crap content:

“But I’ll argue again the problem isn’t just with content farms — content on the web is growing increasingly crappier because it’s just churned out. Increasingly the Internet is a gigantic content farm. There’s little editing, no quality control — it’d be understandable if this was user-generated content, but the junk is coming from major media companies, ones with paid content producers. They’re throwing any crap they can online to get those treasured pageviews.”

Dunaway’s assertion might not have stuck with me if I hadn’t come across the following passage an hour later. In a New Yorker article on Darryl Issa, author Ryan Lizza describes how Issa’s spokesman, Kurt Bardella, manages the congressman’s image. Bardella suggests that his job is much easier than it should be:

“‘Some people in the press, I think, are just lazy as hell. There are times when I pitch a story and they do it word for word. That’s just embarrassing. They’re adjusting to a time that demands less quality and more quantity. And it works to my advantage most of the time, because I think most reporters have liked me packaging things for them. Most people will opt for what’s easier, so they can move on to the next thing. Reporters are measured by how often their stuff gets on Drudge. It’s a bad way to be, but it’s reality.’”

Even allowing for political cynicism, there’s a discomfiting wad of truth in Bardella’s spitball. Manipulation of the press is nothing new, but it’s much easier in an era that “demands less quality and more quantity.” Low-grade writing, editing, and reporting are harder to avoid when you’re expected to publish a lot of copy quickly and at low cost.

So maybe it’s true, as I said yesterday, that Demand Media needs to fix its quality problem. But let’s not fool ourselves. It’s our problem too.

Commodity Content, Demand Media, and Quality

Demand Media LogoAre commodity content and quality incompatible? That seems to be the underlying assumption of most discussions of  Demand Media’s “frothy” IPO successfully concluded yesterday. Ominously, perhaps, that event was preceded by Google’s promise last week to clamp down on high-ranking content-farm sites with “shallow or low-quality content.”

The terms content farm and content factory are meant to be disparaging, as if content is worthless if it isn’t lovingly crafted by hand. Even Demand Media’s CEO is insulted by the label. But the choice of metaphors is odd. Do we really think farms and factories are bad things? Or that the commodities they produce are worthless? Far from it. Their output is essential to modern life.

Likewise, commodity content is essential to publishing, especially B2B publishing and content marketing. Yes, there are unique and exciting developments to cover in any B2B industry, but most B2B media are built on a platform of commodity content.

This is not a new development. Early in my career I was the editor of an industrial product tabloid magazine. Consisting almost entirely of brief descriptions of new products, it was scarcely a glamorous publication. Though now and then it did cover some new, breakthrough technology, the bulk of it was pure, boring commodity content.

Yet through most the 1990s, it prospered. Readers and advertisers alike loved it because it fulfilled an essential need: the discovery of new materials, components, and services.

But the key reason for the magazine’s early success, I believe, was the premium it put on editorial quality. Though many of the products we wrote about were mundane, we made sure the descriptions were readable, accurate, pertinent, and objective. For us, there was nothing about commodity content that was incompatible with quality.

By 2000, of course, the die was cast, and the magazine began a long decline. The Internet is vastly more efficient than print as a tool of discovery.

Demand Media is all about the discovery of commodity content.  It is brilliantly geared towards identifying basic information needs on the Internet and fashioning content that meets those needs efficiently. The element it lacks so far is quality.

That isn’t to say the company is not aiming for quality, or not at least claiming to. CEO Richard Rosenblatt told the L. A. Times yesterday that Demand Media has put in place a “rigorous quality process,” in which each article is “touched by 14 humans, titling, writing, fact checking and copy editing.” The argument would be more compelling if it weren’t so easy to find failures of the quality process (evidently the titler on this one was having a bad day).

The weirdly fascinating thing for me about Demand Media is how it wants to build a high-growth business on commodity content. I’m not convinced it’s possible.

Private equity investors tried to do something similar in the last decade by betting big on B2B publishing as a platform for rapid growth. For most of them, it was a bad bet. The commodity content that B2B publications are built on is essential, but plentiful, and therefore cheap. Quality, the one thing that can distinguish commodity content, is expensive. So the only clear high-growth strategy is to cut expenses, which means cutting quality. As private equity investors discovered, that strategy is not sustainable.

Demand Media has done a brilliant job of recognizing the value of commodity content and making it easily discoverable.  But if it can’t match that brilliance in finding a low-cost way to improve the quality of its content, it may be doomed. Commodity content without editorial quality is a loser’s game.

UPDATE: Really, Demand Media, it doesn’t have to be this bad.

The Yin and Yang of Content Economics

Tweet from Bob ScheierIt has the look of two trends hurtling toward a head-on collision. Content is getting ever cheaper, but to be effective, content has to get ever better. Sooner or later, one of these trends is bound to falter–but which will it be?

That was the implicit question in a plaintive tweet last week from Bob Scheier: After a look at HubSpot’s Writers Network, he asked: “Why are rates so low ($50/blog post)? Was hoping to eat in 2011.”

The skeptical might reply that HubSpot’s network is too new to be representative, that the writers set their own rates (some much higher than $50), and that those with established clients probably earn much more.  But the overall effect of such outlets, in which writers bid against one another, is undeniably to lower writing fees.

We may not like it, but behind this trend is the force of economic law. In a time when everyone is becoming a journalist, Neil Thackray says, “that must mean there is an oversupply of content. And that means the price falls.  Try writing for Demand Media and you will quickly learn the harsh economics of content oversupply.”

On its face, this trend would appear to be great news for marketers. As Josh Gordon pointed out last week, one of the primary attractions of social media is its low cost. Cheap content fits right into that equation. The only problem is this: Cheap content is crappy content.

Gordon puts it this way: “As anyone reading this blog should know by now, good content is not cheap and a social media program is only as good as its content.” As he points out, though, many marketers, at least for now, “see this differently.” It’s no wonder, he says, that they also think social media is one of their least effective marketing tools.

Fortunately, every yin has its yang. While an abundance of content creators leads to oversupply, the scarcity of attention among overwhelmed audiences increases the value of good content. As Paul Conley has argued, the result is an “excellence craze”:

“In B2B, where I make my living, it seems like every company in every tiny niche of every industry has become a content creator. There are a thousand voices competing for very small audiences. . . . The only way I can ensure that my voice is heard is if my content is fantastic.”

This is alien thinking for traditional B2B content producers, notes Conley: “Both trade publishers and custom publishers have seldom felt the need to be great. In a market with only three or four voices, only a crazy person would spend the money to become great.”  But in a market oversaturated with content, spending money for content that stands out from the rest is not just sane, but essential to success.

At the moment, low-cost commodity content is attracting all the attention. But its very prevalence  should ensure that well-written and thoughtful content with a unique point of view will be valued at its true worth.